“Oh my God, Bonnie, you are such an idiot!”
That’s how my Easter Morning began.
Now before you start wondering about the nature of my relationships, I must let you know that the voice throwing out that sharp critique was none other than my own!
Yes, I actually said that to myself! Here’s what happened…
A Missing Table…
In all my eagerness not to miss a moment of my daughter’s annual Easter egg hunt, I set my newly filled coffee cup where I was pretty sure a coffee table had once been. The coffee table however, had been rolled about 2 feet to the right – no doubt to accommodate my daughter’s search for eggs, meaning my morning cup of brew was now quickly spreading across the living room floor.
Morning 1. Bonnie 0.
As I hopped up to grab some paper towel, I could hear the inner grumblings begin. They were benign at first; sounding like a “I SO don’t need this right now”, they then morphed into a voice of frustration asking, “Why do coffee tables even have wheels????”.
Finally, the growing frustration turned into the sharp lash of inward blame concluding “Oh, my God Bonnie, you are such an idiot!”
How’s that for a slippery slope?
Milliseconds was all it took to go from the joy of an Easter morning to a feeling of shame and inadequacy.
Fortunately, for me, I know that downward slide can be stopped before it becomes a downward spiral. I took a quick breath and just as sharply stated out loud, “It was an accident! No big deal, and look, the cup didn’t even break! Go, Me!”.
Then, as I finished wiping up the mess I intentionally stated, “Ok, that’s done!”.
In that moment, I felt the weight that was building melt away as I turned back to my daughter’s Easter morning egg hunt. In 5 minutes, the whole ordeal was over.
So why is all of this important to you?
It is important because I am not the only one with an inner bully. We all have that small voice within us that does its best to make us feel ashamed, small, and insignificant. We all have an inner bully.
Why do we have an inner bully?
Our inner bully’s job is to keep us from trying new things. It develops in our early childhood when we begin learning that our natural desire to explore can sometimes have undesirable consequences (loss, pain etc.). When these consequences result in strong negative emotions, our brain tries to ensure we do not have similar experiences in the future and begins limiting our willingness to explore or try things that may go wrong. The inner bully is one of the most common self-limiting tools our brain uses.
If each time you make a mistake you are chastised and put down, you very quickly learn not to try new things. Our inner bully uses many different tools to make us afraid of our mistakes. In the example above, my inner bully used shame and blame of the ‘what’s wrong with you’ variety to make me question my own competency.
Our inner bully can also blow our mistakes out of proportion, make them seem catastrophic, or even string them together to make it look like all we ever do is fail. It will do anything it can to make us afraid to try.
How can I get rid of my inner bully?
Your inner bully will lose its power over you if you follow these 3 steps consistently:
1. Acknowledge and accept your inner bully is real and that it represents a part of you that is afraid to fail.
Recognizing our inner bully as a tool to protect us from past consequences of our mistakes, helps us understand that fear is the real problem. This allows us to explore how/why we became so afraid to make mistakes and to identify whether or not these fears are valid today.
2. Develop a new way of defining your mistakes.
Reflect on how you currently feel and respond when you make a mistake. What does it mean to you to make a mistake? Typically, there is some fearful understanding we accepted as children that we hang on to as adults such as “a mistake means I am stupid” or it means “everyone is better than me.” Whatever you find, you will need a new definition to help your brain be less afraid.
Here are a few examples my clients have used successfully:
- Mistakes give me a chance to learn what won’t work.
- Mistakes are practice runs until I get better.
- Mistakes show me where I can improve.
- Human’s make mistakes, they are only a big deal if we make them a big deal.
3. Take Charge
When you do make a mistake, take charge immediately by telling your brain how to look at the situation. In the example above, I explained that the cup dropping was an accident, that it was not a big deal AND that there was even a silver lining that needed to be considered (the cup not breaking). I ended with a celebratory “Go Me!” to generate a positive emotion. When I was done cleaning up the mess I stated, “Ok. That’s done” to let my brain know the incident was over and not to be revisited.
We program our brain through our self-talk, so you never want your fear-driven inner bully to have the last word. You must respond to that voice with the guidance, authority, and care that you would if you were correcting a child. A voice that caringly suggests, “Nope, that’s not how we do things,” plants a new understanding and then re-directs the focus away from guilt and shame.
While all of this might feel a little out-of-the-box, it works. It has worked in my life and in the lives of my many clients.
I have seen those whose childhood mistakes were paired with devastating experiences of loss and abuse silence their inner bully, reclaim their power, and free themselves from the crippling limitations of fear.
Mistakes can move us forward. Fear cannot.
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Bonnie J. Skinner, MEd, CCC, RP
B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy